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date: 20 February 2019

Material Culture as a Historical Source

Summary and Keywords

Over the last couple of centuries, there has been a profound shift in the things which Africans have around them, or in other words their material culture. At differing speeds and to different extents, depending on the part of the continent and the political and religious positioning of the people concerned, the goods of the globalized world have penetrated to the farthest reaches of Africa. Belongings, and thus identities, have taken on new forms. This, however, is not a completely new phenomenon, as Africans have been absorbing things from outsiders to the continent for as long as there have been humans outside Africa. Understanding these shifts, and analyzing the causes and consequences thereof, requires the study of a wide variety of types of sources, many of which are dealt with by historians of Africa with a rare degree of sophistication, so that the fascinating stories of material change can be fully examined.

Keywords: material culture, Africa, historical sources, archaeology, photography, consumption, ceramics, clothing

Material culture is in essence the things we have around us. In principle they are inanimate, and, again with a few exceptions (e.g., pebbles as paperweights, or feathers as decoration), they have been transformed by humans in some way or other before they are put to use.1 In the process of selection and transformation, and in their use, they have been given meaning by humans. In terms of size, they can range from the largest palaces, or cathedrals, down to the tiniest microchip. They are what distinguishes us from other animals.2

To understand the historical importance of African material culture, it is necessary to address two main questions:

  1. 1) How can the material culture of African people in the past be reconstructed?

  2. 2) Having done so, what can this reconstruction be used for, or, in other words, how does the study of material culture in the past enable historians to make statements about the past that they would otherwise not be able to?

In attempting to answer these questions, the main examples will be taken from Southern Africa, although there is reason to believe that most of the points made here are applicable across the continent.

The Reconstruction of Past Material Cultures

There are in principle four ways in which to reconstruct the material culture of the past. These are, first, on the basis of surviving objects; second, on the basis of verbal descriptions, whether written or oral, and whether made at the time concerned or subsequently, on the basis of memory; third, on the basis of images, such as photographs and drawings; and fourth, on the basis of the words used for things. All four are in various ways problematic.

Surviving Objects

The largest proportion of artifacts from the past came from archaeological excavations, or indeed surface collections. Much of the disciplinary work of archaeologists has to do with the methodological problems of the interpretations of such finds. It is usually possible for an archaeologist to provide a plausible reconstruction—at least on paper, or on a computer screen—of how the buildings that they encounter in their work would have looked. House floors, the undersides of the walls, holes that contained wooden posts to hold the buildings up, occasionally, as at Great Zimbabwe, or across the South African Highveld, and indeed parts of the Karoo, where there are surviving walls and buildings of stone that are far from complete ruins: all these allow archaeologists to complete this task.3 Where hills were terraced to enable intensive agriculture, or irrigation systems built to bring water to specific plots, these interventions in the landscape can be fairly easily mapped.4 But by no means all Africans lived in (semi-)permanent houses, and in certain climatic and vegetational circumstances, almost all traces of housing can disappear.

What archaeologists have found from among those things that were kept in the houses, or other dwelling places, is similarly no random sample from the material culture of the inhabitants of these structures. Essentially, under normal circumstances, all organic materials have been destroyed over the course of time, by termites, rot, or whatever. Only in very exceptional cases have clothing, leatherwork, wood carving, or basketry from the (relatively) distant past made it into the archaeologists’ present. The woolen clothing from around 1000 CE, found in the Tellem caves in Mali, owe their continued existence to the incredibly dry climate of the desert edge.5 There may also be anaerobic swamps in which organic material is preserved, but these are very rare. So what archaeology has to offer, in terms of material culture, are primarily the stone tools and the pottery that are close to indestructible. Occasional finds of brass and copper can also be made, but even iron has far too often rusted away. It is, and is acknowledged to be, a small and biased sample of what there once was, made worse by the fact that there are substantial differences between the preservation rates in distinct climatic regimes.

The stone tools, by the end of the time of their use (and long before that), were small and had generally to be hafted before they could be an operational tool. Some scrapers might have been held in the fingers, but the large hand axes of the Acheulean were long gone. Otherwise, mastic was used to attach the sharpened pieces of stone to pieces of wood, or straight canes, so as to form knives or arrows. With a few exceptions, only the lithic material has generally survived, although the chemical residues from what the tools had been used on may be found on some of the tools.6 Something similar happens with pottery. For the purposes of archaeologists, earthenware has two, seemingly contradictory, characteristics, both advantageous. First, it regularly breaks, so there are quantities of sherds left behind, and potters continually need to replace the wares. Second, the sherds themselves are exceedingly long lasting and are not subject to the ravages of termites and so forth. Nevertheless, because archaeological work, like any other form of science, must derive from the evidence it uncovers, archaeologists have had to become increasingly aware that it is not the lithic material or the potsherds that are the objects of study in themselves, but that the task of the archaeologists is to make statements about the human past on the basis of what they find in the ground.

There are also those objects that were collected from African households, shrines, or wherever, and have found their way into museums. What matters here are the decisions that were made at the moment of acquisition. Almost invariably, collectors were looking for the “authentic,” which tends to be translated into a concern that the objects in question were produced and used by the group from whom they had been bought, or plundered. It was rarely admitted that Africans quickly discovered that the Europeans would pay good money for articles of material culture, notably but not exclusively of a religious nature. In reaction, they would produce extra examples of these goods for the trade.7 But, beyond this, collectors, for instance the anthropologists Eileen and Jack Krige among the Lovedu in northern South Africa in the 1930s, bought what was being made in the villages, mainly in a pristine state. This was what was seen to be Lovedu material culture. That which was being imported was ignored.8

Within this process, there was a hierarchy of what was sought after. In very general terms, Central and West Africa were seen, in the global north, as having art traditions, which made them the prime targets for collectors. Eastern and Southern Africa, in contrast, came increasingly to be considered the realm not of people, but of big-game animals, which dominated museum exhibits on the region.9 It was not a region of masquerades, nor of religious “idols.” There was little that was spectacular, so that, even in South Africa itself, many fewer ethnographica were collected than in comparable countries. Even the exceptions—Robert Gordon’s collections from the Khoesan and William Burchell’s from the Batlhaping—can be seen as an extension of their natural-history interests.10 In the eyes of the museum, there was very little, if anything, there. Max Gluckman merely reflected these ideas with his comment that among the amaZulu “wealth did not give a chief opportunity to live a higher level than his inferiors. He had more wives and bigger homesteads, but he could not surround himself with luxuries, for there were none.”11

Written Descriptions

In Europe and colonial North America, the main non-material sources for the study of material culture are the inventories of property that were left after people had died. In Africa, such inventories are available for a reasonable proportion of the free colonists of the Cape, but not, so far as I am aware, for any African population under colonial rule and subsequently.12 The main written material, therefore, has to be from descriptions that were made of African houses and their contents, by white ethnographers, missionaries, and increasingly African journalists, novelists, and so forth. Then there is the information that can be gleaned from commercial sources, initially mainly advertising, but also market research.

To take the former first, once again there are questions as to how representative these writings can be. Do they tend to favor the exotic, or do they give a reasonable account of everything that was in a house? The answers to these questions are not invariable. Some of the ethnographers attempted to reconstruct how things had been at “point zero,” before “contamination” by European colonial influences. Others did not attempt to hide that goods from outside had come into African households, even if they were not always used for the purposes for which they had been designed. In West Africa, a major thrust of historical archaeology has been to discover how, when, and where the goods used by Europeans to buy the enslaved and other commodities penetrated the furthest reaches of the interior.13 The most notable object was probably the cowrie shell, imported in the tens of millions from the Maldives by the Dutch, and also the British, which came to form the basis of the monetary system across much of the continent.14 Similarly, in historical and archaeological work on the Swahili coast of East Africa, an area of the continent for which trade across the ocean was essential to its inhabitants’ well-being, questions of materiality, consumption, and indeed consumerism have become central.15 And then there were those anthropologists who were specifically concerned with so-called culture contact. The most notable of these was perhaps Ellen Hellmann, who worked in the slum yards of Johannesburg in the 1930s and found no vestiges of a traditional material culture among her subjects.16 In contrast to this were those who were concerned with questions concerning the adaptation European lifestyles by the African colonial elite.17 Each of these approaches contains its own biases, which have to be taken into account.

As the 20th century progressed, an increasing amount of effort and money was spent on advertising aimed at the African market, in a variety of colonial and postcolonial settings. For instance, from the early 1950s, there were three major monthly magazines in South Africa that targeted urban, relatively well-off Africans. These were Zonk!, Boma, and Drum. In all of them, at least half the space was taken up with advertising. Similar magazines could be found in most parts of the continent, for instance in Ghana, Nigeria, and what was to become Zambia. These sorts of publications almost invariably portray a “modern” lifestyle, which, it would seem, is generally too “optimistic.” Advertisers, of course, are concerned to demonstrate a lifestyle to which people are expected to, or are being persuaded to, aspire, not one that they necessarily already follow. Once the advertising industry began to realize the potential of African markets throughout Southern, and indeed West, Africa, then the ideal of the bourgeois nuclear family, and the associated European goods, came to be propagated widely.18 The images that were produced, on the paper of the various magazines and in the minds of their readers, did not coincide with the actual lives of the mass of the African populations of, say, Johannesburg, Lagos, or Ndola in Northern Rhodesia (Zambia). They are nevertheless important as a way to comprehend what was to be hoped for, and striven for.

Advertisers famously comment that they know that half of what they put out has no effect, but that they never know which half. This basic problem was compounded in, for instance, apartheid South Africa because the advertising profession was largely the preserve of whites, above all white men, whose knowledge of the ways of life of the black inhabitants of the towns in which they both lived was minimal. Indeed, in 1960, the Third National Advertising Convention was addressed by Miss M. M. Dell, a senior research officer of Lever Brothers, which of course was concerned with selling soaps and margarines, among many other goods, to the African market. She set out a long range of questions that needed to be addressed, which demonstrated the ignorance, and the generalizing mindset, of the profession. She asked, inter alia,

And then the living habits of the African—what time to they get up in the morning? And go to bed? Is breakfast eaten at all or do they merely have a cup of tea before going off to work?19

Her information on such matters derived at that stage from a survey by the Institute of Race Relations taking in just fifty-three Johannesburg families. As to the rest of the country, particularly rural areas, even Lever Bros were totally in the dark.

This changed after 1960, as a result of, first, the Bureau of Market Research, set up at the University of South Africa, which began a long series of surveys of income and expenditure of all groups of South Africans at that time. This was the first professional organization in the field in South Africa, and has since then done much to provide an empirical basis for the debates on the country’s economy. It was followed in 1974 by the establishment of the South African Advertising Research Foundation (SAARF), which received 1 percent of the industry’s turnover in exchange for a mass of general market research.20 Its prime concern has been to investigate what proportion of the South African population listens to what radio stations, watches what television, and reads what newspapers or magazines.21 This information is split by various demographics—essentially locality, class, race, and gender—which eventually became subsumed in the Life Style Measurement, which places South Africans in ten different categories, on the basis of regularly updated criteria. To this are added questions as to the goods purchased by those who listen, watch, or read the various media outlets. The information is based on very many interviews, currently over 13,000 a year, with a carefully selected sample of South Africans as to their consumption habits.22 The result is that for the recent past a whole range of quantitative information on South African consumption is available, if not freely. It is of course only as good as the interviews that lie behind it, but the commercial value of the material means that large-scale inconsistencies over the years, which would indicate failing research methods, do not seem to have occurred.

Photographs and Other Visual Materials

The strictures that surround the use of written materials are even more strongly to be seen in the use of drawings, paintings, and, from the 1850s, photography in Africa. Historians have to make the same sort of judgments on visual material as on texts. Above all they have to be wary of exoticism. Artists could be both factual and exoticizing. Thomas Baines, in the mid-19th-century Cape, for instance, could produce highly realistic studies of migrant laborers returning to Xhosaland laden with European goods—clothes, guns, and three-legged pots—while his colleague, Frederick l’Ions painted romanticized portraits of Xhosa leaders, so that British soldiers could be assured they had fought against worthy opponents.23

In principle, at least, the use of photography should be easy. A photograph is after all the registration of a single short moment in time and place. Thus, it might seem as though what is seen in such a photograph is a precise registration of how things were then and there. Things are, however, never that simple. Behind every camera is a photographer who released the shutter at that given moment. The questions that must be continually asked are: Why did s/he do that at precisely that moment? And, by extension, why has this particular photograph been chosen for further reproduction? In other words, what was the photographer trying to say with this shot? The principles are the same as with the interrogation of written sources, and the possibilities of bias with regard to material culture just as great, if not greater.

As an illustration of the difficulties that may arise, take the works of Alfred Duggan-Cronin. In the first half of the 20th century, this Irish immigrant to South Africa produce eleven volumes of, generally, beautiful photographs entitled The Bantu Tribes of South Africa.24

Material Culture as a Historical SourceClick to view larger

Figure 1. Thomas Baines, “AmaXhosa having made their fortunes leaving the Colony,” 1848. Published in Thomas Baines, Scenary and Ecents in South Africa: a series of views. London: Ackerman, 1852.

As Michael Godby has commented, they create an image of an “ambiguous idyll.”25 Duggan-Cronin produced photographs that referred back to a time before the arrival of the Europeans, or of their goods. The photos were very carefully staged, in accordance with the leading ideas of the project. Duggan-Cronin’s aim was described by the gallery in which they came to be displayed as an attempt “to preserve in a pictorial record . . . a distinctive way of life which had buckled to the impact of a civilization thrust upon it; to divide and subdivide; to study the Native in his pristine glory, to capture his fine physique, his industry, his loves, hates and arts.”26 To this end, European clothing was discarded. The ornaments on the bodies of those who were photographed were almost exclusively beadwork and leather. “Inappropriate” things were removed from the field of the camera, and on occasion appropriate objects were introduced, even if they were not already present, nor always from the place where the photograph was being taken. The subjects of these photographs were pushed back into a timeless, primitive Africa. As a result, the oeuvre that Duggan-Cronin left is a document to the ways in which white South Africa viewed the inhabitants of the “native reserves,” and thus it provides a fascinating insight into the mindset of segregation. It is much more difficult to see how Duggan-Cronin’s photographs can be used to document the material culture of even rural South Africans in the early 20th century, let alone to start thinking about the ways in which this changed with the passage of time and the increasing urbanization of the country.

It is instructive to compare Duggan-Cronin’s volumes with the photography of Isaac Schapera, taken in Mochudi in what was then the Bechuanaland Protectorate at more or less the same time. Schapera was at the time professor of anthropology at the University of Cape Town, and a supreme ethnographer. In his publications, he describes how the young men of the town, most of whom had worked as migrant laborers on the South African mines, brought back European goods with them, or had bulky items such as beds, chairs, and mattresses sent by rail. He was no sentimentalist, and he commented that “the material standards of life have been improving and the range of individual possessions increased.”27 His photographs mirror those sorts of concerns. He shows women drinking tea from china cups, and using their sewing machines. Except for children, youths during their initiation ceremony, and a praise singer “in ceremonial garb,” just about everyone is portrayed wearing European clothing, if at times rather ragged. The photos give an impression of how it was, and what things there were around (though the volume does not include either gramophones or bicycles, which Schapera had commented were the main consumer goods in addition to sewing machines).

Photography was never simply a means for outsiders to record African societies. From the early 20th century, if not earlier, studios were established in many African towns where individuals could have their pictures taken. These studios had various props with which the sites could associate themselves. Though on occasion highly artistic productions, the images which were shot were often the precise mirror images, conceptually speaking, of those Duggan-Cronin had made.28 The clients could have themselves recorded as more “modern” and prosperous than they actually were, rather than more “primitive.”29 It is only when the surviving photographs depict the domestic interiors of black households, and were in the possession of the inhabitants of the black townships, that such strictures are, at least partially, not applicable.30

Words and Things

One final research source needs to be addressed, namely the vocabulary that is used to designate various things in African languages. At its most simple, this demonstrates which goods definitely were introduced from outside the continent, or the region. Numerous goods are known in various African languages by their European names, suitably emended to fit the morphology and syntax of the host tongue. Thus, to give one set of examples out of the many that are available, the isiZulu words for “spoon,” “fork,” “mug,” and “plate” are “isipunu,” “imfologo,” “imagi,” and “ipuleti,” respectively.31 The fact that these, and many other items of material culture, have been absorbed into Zulu households, and the language, from the English, is hereby fully confirmed, if that were necessary.

In certain circumstances, it is possible to use the same technique for more sophisticated analysis. If the various languages in a particular region are fairly closely related to one another, and diverged from a common ancestor relatively recently—probably no more than three millennia ago—then it may be possible to see the words for goods, and also for many other concepts, spread from one language, and thus presumably from one group of people, to others, or alternatively, to see how concepts developed in one place were maintained by all the (social) descendants of the inventors of the idea. This can be done because related languages differ from one another not just in their vocabulary but also because regular sound shifts have occurred, and words from one language are likely not to have undergone the same sound shifts as those in another. It is thus possible to create a relative chronology of the introduction of various goods, and indeed ideas, and techniques of dealing with sickness, of organizing society, and so forth. Whether an absolute chronology, however approximate, can be indicated depends on the efficacy of the method of analysis known as glottochronology, which focuses on those concepts that are not culturally specific and assumes that languages diverge at a constant rate. The study of historical semantics, on the one hand, and historical linguistics, in the strict sense, are complementary, but have to be kept sharply divided. Be that as it may, the application of the method of “Words and Things” to Africa’s Central Rainforest, to the western part of the southern Savannah, and to the lands between the Rift Valley and Lake Victoria, has produced some of the most impressive Africanist historical works of the last decades, certainly among those dealing with the continent’s deep past.32

The Use of Material Culture Studies for the Reconstruction of African History

It is all very well to create biographies of things, to see when they were introduced into a society, and when they fell out of use, to investigate how far they were used for what they were designed for, and so forth. The problem is that such work has to contribute to wider discussions on (in this case African) history, if it is to escape from the charge of antiquarianism. What, in other words, is the importance of reconstructing histories of material culture? And how should historians move from such reconstructions to wider statements about the African past? This occurs, I would argue, in three main spheres.

Cultural Diffusion

In the early part of the 20th century, there were a number of leading scholars who argued that all significant developments in the history of human society originated in Egypt or Western Asia, whence they spread across the rest of the globe. This “hyperdiffusionist” position was associated above all with Grafton Elliot Smith in London. However, the extremism of this argument led to its being ridiculed, so that diffusionist ideas fell heavily out of fashion, and they have shown no signs of a resurgence. Nevertheless, there have been a number of studies in a less virulent form of diffusionism at the very least provided interesting questions.

In many ways the most interesting, certainly in terms of the methods employed, has been a study by the musicologist A. M. Jones of African xylophones.33 This was based almost entirely on the objects, and their musical properties. Jones demonstrated that the tuning of African xylophones is more or less identical to that found across Indonesia and mainland Southeast Asia. In both cases, an octave is divided into seven more or less equal intervals. The claim that Jones made is that this coincidence is too unlikely to be the result of convergent developments. Rather, Jones claimed, there must have been some Indonesian presence on the African continent, certainly on the east coast and possibly even to the Guinea coast, after a passage round the Cape of Good Hope.

This argument is given a certain amount of corroboration. Jones claims that there are other African musical instruments that exhibit Indonesian traits, and that some of the technical vocabulary on xylophones in African languages is potentially of Indonesian origin. Of course, Madagascar was colonized, during the 1st millennium CE, by people from the Indonesian archipelago, and bananas and plantains were introduced into Africa, probably around the same time, from Southeast Asia.34 Nevertheless, in the absence of any evident archaeological Indonesian presence on the African continent, and perhaps as a result of the recondite skills that are needed to check Jones’s work, the arguments for an Indonesian presence in ancient Africa have not been seriously repeated.

Surprisingly, something similar seems to have happened to one of the early theories propagated by Jan Vansina, one of true greats of African historiography. In 1969, he published an article in which he discussed the distribution of clapperless bells across the continent.35 The point of this was that the bells became symbols of kingship, and were incorporated into royal regalia, so that the spread of such objects could be seen as a proxy for the spread of ideas of monarchy. Again, it is not quite clear why these ideas have not been fully tested, even by Vansina himself (who promised a full monograph on the subject, but seems never to have written it). Perhaps it is the difficulty of assembling the full range of information, though since museum catalogues became available online, that has become ever easier. However, it is also a symptom of the long academic neglect of deep African history, and the dominance of linguistic studies of the deeper past. More generally it reflects the general failure of African historians to find a way to incorporate material things into their analyses of the African past.


There is a very appropriate coincidence of meaning between “belonging” and “belongings.” Just as in the famous German pun “Der Mensch ist, was er isst” (One is what one eats), so where one belongs and what one has are inextricable. This works in two directions. On the one hand, observers may consider that people who had similar items of material culture belonged together, even if they were themselves not necessarily aware of their relationship. On the other hand, material culture, particularly clothing, is one of the most salient ways in which people proclaim who they are, and with whom they belong.


In particular in archaeological work, it is very often argued that a shared material culture entailed a shared identity, at some level. The main support for this argument is that things are not just objects to be used, but they are also imbued by humans with meaning, in a coherent system of cultural symbols. As a result, material culture is held to be related to language, the prime reservoir of meaning for people, and often a way of distinguishing one set of people from another. From there it is a short step to applying linguistic and even ethnic labels to particular archaeological sites, or at least layers thereof. Very often, at least in Africa, the archaeological unit that is considered to reflect a social identity is defined in terms of pottery, for reasons that are explained above.36

While there are still a few archaeologists who adhere to such a program, notably Thomas Huffman, in general it is now recognized that the simple coincidence of pots, languages, and political ethnicities entails arguments that can no longer be sustained.37 This does not of course mean that the study of ceramics is no longer a central part of archaeological practice; the potsherds are there, and the question is, how they can be analyzed in such a way as to yield answers to interesting questions. For instance, firstly, archaeologists have recognized a shift in the pottery found on the Ugandan shores of Lake Victoria, dated to the 9th to 13th centuries CE. The assemblages include many larger vessels than earlier. This is interpreted as a consequence of changing patterns of food consumption, and as evidence that more people were tending to eat together. The social and political causes of such a change would seem evident.38 Secondly, in direct contradiction of the “ethnic” model, similarities in pots can be frequently seen as evidence of mobility, and of the fleeting existence of bounded communities in a world of shifting frontiers.39


In no other aspect of material culture is identity expressed as explicitly and as fully as in dress. Clothing, indeed, has a number of functions, above all to protect the body from the elements, heat, cold, rain, wind, or sun, to ward off unwanted gazes for reasons of modesty, and to attract those gazes which are sought.40 Above all, though, specific clothes are worn to make statements about their wearers, above all, “This is the sort of person I want you to think that I am.”

Especially in Africa, clothes have very rarely survived from the past, and even in the 21st century, cloth is likely to be recycled. As a result, it is very rarely possible to construct a history of clothing in any part of the continent on the basis of surviving objects. Historians therefore have to have recourse to photographs, drawings, and verbal descriptions, written or otherwise. The dangers of bias, and above all of exoticization, that this entails are obvious, particularly as the eye behind the camera, or the hand holding the pen, was very often foreign to the society in question, or indeed to Africa as a whole. But once such considerations have been taken into account, there is a lot to be made of descriptions and depictions of African clothing.

Take for example this famous passage written by Godfrey Wilson in 1939 on the mineworkers of Broken Hill (now Kabwe) in what has become Zambia:

Every African man of whatever social group tries to dress smartly for strolling round the town, or for visiting in his spare time, and loves to astonish the world with a new jacket, or a new pair of trousers of distinguished appearance. Women behave in the same way; and they judge husbands and lovers largely according to the amounts of money they are given by them to spend on clothes. Clothes are discussed unceasingly, in much the same way that I have heard primitive villagers discuss their cattle; they are tended lovingly and carefully housed in boxes at night. It is largely by accumulating clothes that men save. Clothes ... are the chief medium in which obligations to country relatives are fulfilled. The Africans of Broken Hill are not a cattle people, nor a goat people, nor a fishing people, nor a tree cutting people, they are a dressed people.41

Work, and in particular migrant labor, is clearly undertaken to fulfil some material desire, or need. For these people, developing their status in a colonial society meant acquiring the physical accoutrements of the society that had colonized them. Only then could they go “walking home majestically,” to rejoice in the admiration of those who were still in their villages of origin.42

Status of a different kind could also be expressed by clothing, sometimes not in the ways in which it was intended. On the east coast of Africa and on Zanzibar, people who had been enslaved and brought to the slave market were thereafter completely redressed by their new owners, so as, at least symbolically, to break all their ties with their natal families or countries. Indeed, the enslaved of both sexes regularly received new outfits, thus to demonstrate the wealth and importance of their owners. But even the supposedly free were subjected to very much the same re-creation of a personality through attire. After the slave ships on which they were being transported had been captured by the British Navy, those people brought into Zanzibar were generally handed over to Universities Mission to Central Africa. They were then reclothed, the boys and young men being given long cotton shirts known as kanzus and red fezzes, the girls and young women in white dresses with red sashes. The message this sent out, including to the recaptives themselves, was clear. They had been enslaved to the Europeans, and it behooved them to behave as such.43

In general, indeed, the conversion of many Africans to Christianity, over the course of the 19th and 20th centuries, was signaled by their adoption of European-style dress, and for that matter many other aspects of European material culture. In 19th-century Natal, for instance, his putting on a shirt was one of the early “outward and visible” signs that a man was on the way to accepting Christianity.44 Equally, in the early 1930s the Native Economic Commission sent round a questionnaire in which they asked, inter alia, “Is there a growing tendency on the part of Natives in your district to adopt European dress, homes furniture, recreation, amenities, reading, education, customs in marriage and in the employment of servants?” The answer to this question, given by the district magistrates and others, made clear that among the Christian communities the adoption of European things was widespread, though they differed as to the degree of Europeanization among those who had not converted.45 But at any rate, the trend was evident. This formed part of a revolution in consumption patterns that spread rapidly across the continent over the course of the 20th century. This revolution was tied closely to the politics of colonialism and the postcolonial state. It is, however, a question of debate whether it is to be seen as a form of imperialism, and the colonization of consciousness, or alternatively as a claim to inclusion in a political order from which Africans were excluded.46


Africa has always been an open continent, attracting and responding to the changing streams of globalization and changing material cultures that have come to its shores, and exporting its own ideas and things as opportunity served. There were of course gradations in this. The east coast had long ties with the rest of the Indian Ocean world. The west coast vastly expanded its contacts after the beginnings of sea trade to Europe in the later 15th century, while the commerce across the Sahara boosted the cosmopolitanism of the northern Savanna. The south was long the least globalized of the coastal regions, and the interiors of Central and East Africa were at the end of long trails to both east and west coasts. However, in the 19th and above all the twentieth 20th, this changed. The demand for slaves and ivory led to a major shift in military technology, as firearms came to dominate the southern Savanna, and parts of the Congo rainforest.47 This was followed by the establishment of colonial states and the labor demands of agriculture and mining. The African continent has become as much part of global consumer society as any other part of the world. The result has been the selective adoption of goods of the type classically described as “Western,” though of course an increasing proportion are nowadays produced in various parts of Asia. Africans have not adopted chopsticks, to any great extent, but there can be few households without Chinese-made enamel bowls.

The Fight to be “Authentic”

As might be expected, the ways of dealing with things Western were diverse. Analytically, they can be reduced to two main strategies, both of which were designed as ways to maintain and re-acquire dignity in the face of colonial cultural denigration. The less common of the two was to stress, through dress and to a lesser extent through other articles of material culture, that African ways were as good as European ones.

The clearest example of this could be found in the debates on clothing that were conducted among the Christian Yoruba elite. On one side of the debate were the missionaries, including a number of those who had been enslaved, and later captured by the British on their enforced journey the Americas. To them, European dress and other cultural objects, such as teacups, were “emblems of the new way of life.” The alternative was described as “a state of semi-nudity, having only the waist cloth, being from the waist upwards and from the knee downward, and that too in the presence of ladies.” The contrary view was that “every African bearing a foreign name is like a ship sailing under false colours, and every African wearing a foreign dress in his country is like the jackdaw in peacock’s feathers.” In more general terms, so it was claimed, “the white man’s style, the white man’s name, the white man’s dress, are so many non-essentials, so many props and crutches affecting the religious manhood of the Christian African.” Over the long term, the latter view prevailed. So-called African dress came to be the norm for both ceremonial and everyday occasions. African nationalism, combined perhaps with a realization of just how uncomfortable European broadcloth could be in the heat of Nigeria, won out.48 Similar movements elsewhere led to Anglophone West Africa being one of the few areas of the world in which the Western two- or even three-piece suit has never been the dominant costume of the male elite.49

There is, as ever, an irony in this. Even in the earliest years of the Yoruba cultural revival, Yoruba cloth, in particular the tie and die adire, was not enough. It was increasingly supplemented by European prints, in a broader range of colors than the indigo-died adire could furnish. From the later 19th century onward, these cloths were mainly printed in the Netherlands, on the basis of Indonesian batik technology. Eventually all the firms went out of business, with the exception of Vlisco, which continues to produce the highest-quality printed cloths in its works in the Dutch provincial town of Helmond. Their market is virtually exclusively in West Africa. There, “real Dutch wax” cloths are still the apogee of textile luxury. They have become symbols of African design, and are copied widely across the continent, and these days by Chinese and other Asian firms.50 However, the patterns on the cloths were created in a hit-and-miss fashion by Dutch designers employed by the factories, most of whom never visited West Africa, and who took their inspiration from a wide range of sources. Indeed, what is probably the most iconic, and most plagiarized, of Vlisco’s designs, a circle with two triangles set in the center of an elaborate border, derives from an altar cloth used in the Republic of Georgia.51


The more common reaction to colonial cultural denigration has been to take on “Western” material culture, and reclaim dignity by acquiring and displaying such goods in large quantities, and from the best possible marques. The claims that were made on the basis of such acquisitions, and of course the accompanying behavior, might on occasion be directed against colonial officials.52 Increasingly, though, the arena in which the competition for status and respect was intra-African. As Michael Rowlands argued, on the basis of his work in Bamenda in the Cameroon grassfields during the 1980s,

the cultural language of development and progress and its material appropriation ink terms of the consumption of the products of western technologies, has become the ultimate touchstone for confirming and evaluating the nature of personal and group success. In other words, in Cameroon and perhaps more widely in Africa, to be developed is measured in terms of the capacity to consume the products of Western technologies rather than to produce them.53

Rowlands then gave descriptions of the house interiors of a number of his informants in and around Bamenda. One, a prosperous civil servant, was living in a government house that “is furnished in a mixture of government and personally supplied items which at present include a refigerator, deep freezer, TV, telephone, video, radio and stereo, upholstered chairs, dining table and chairs and carpets laid on a ceramic tile floor. Except for the chairs and table, all of these are imported goods.” Of another, a successful businessman, Rowlands writes,

His house is built in modern materials on a traditional compound pattern with an outer courtyard and his own quarters set behind. Each of his [two] wives have their bedroom and parlour with a separate kitchen, where they stay with their children. The public area is floored with ceramic tiles . . . and the rest with plastic tiles. He has a TV, video, freezer, radio and a telephone in his own quarters and his wives’ parlours are furnished with upholstered chairs, table and chairs and a cupboard. He plans to build a new “more modern” house in front of the existing one which will be self-contained, with water and electricity.

Such descriptions could in theory be multiplied innumerably, or at least could have been if ethnographers had recorded the contents of the houses they visited—though, admittedly, privacy issues might have made this rather problematic.54 It is not by chance that the most detailed description of the possessions of the emergent African middle class (that I know of) relates to the employees of Union Minière in the Congolese mining city of Lubumbashi—then Elizabethville and under Belgian colonial rule. They were living in company housing and probably felt themselves under pressure to submit to the inquisitiveness of a company-sponsored Belgian researcher. And the demands of the company no doubt imposed a more modern regime than they would otherwise have enjoyed. All the same, there was little in their houses that a petite bourgeoise from Brussels would not have had, except perhaps the pagnes (wraparound cloths) that the African women used in place of skirts.55

That which was described as “development” in 1980s Cameroon and elsewhere as “modernity” had to be learned. Throughout the continent, there were mission and government schools that not only taught the standard subjects for examinations, but also, for instance through “domestic science” lessons, sought to inculcate the values and the practices of the European middle class.56 This was part of the “civilizing offensive,” aka “civilising mission,” which was launched as much against the European lower classes as against colonial subjects.57 It was a multipronged attack. In 1959, Charles Marx, the president of the South African Federated Chamber of Industries—not perhaps the most objective of sources—informed the Second Advertising Convention in South Africa that “advertising has been and is the most important single factor in influencing, particularly our urbanised Bantu towards the acceptance of at least the outward symbols of our Western civilisation. . . . The Bantu is aspiring to what he believes to be our standard of living and undoubtedly advertising has been a vital influence in this.”58 Marx was himself the managing director of a company that made polishes. The creation of as large a consumer base to buy his products as possible was clearly in his interest, even if there was a potential clash with the apartheid ideologues, and those who employed African laborers at very low rates of pay.

The fact that there were many forces pushing Africans to become consumers of Western products does not mean that those Africans necessarily opposed or rejected material development or modernity. On the contrary, they were often more likely to complain of exclusion from the delights of modernity than of the breakdown of their “traditional” way of life. The 1944 testimony of the Umtali (Mutare) Native Welfare Society to a government commission in what became Zimbabwe is both explicit and typical:

The people are growing in wanting European-style furniture. They are buying tables, chairs, cupboards and table clothes in the store. Hundreds of cups and saucers came to Meikles Store. Many native people flocked to buy them until it was said that there were not any to sell to natives. They want looking glasses, combs, baths, scissors, flower vases, picture frames, teapots, cutlery etc. . . .

The people are using better clothing.They want suits of all kinds, overcoats, hats,shoes, shirts, dresses, sweaters, marriage outfits . . . The people want claner and more sanitary surroundings . . . They are making rubbish pits and closets. They beautify their houses with trees and flowers. Other wants are phonographs, musical instruments, radios. The people have wanted better things ever since they saw the missionaries and other Europeans having them.59

This is the voice of what was becoming the African middle class, and thus, in time, of African anticolonial nationalism. The demand for the acquisition of consumer goods was easily transmuted into a demand for power.

The Exotic and the Mundane

What people have heavily influences what they are. The goods with which people surround themselves, and which they use in order to progress through their daily lives, are at the very least the outward signs of their identities, and are sometimes more convincing as to who they really are than the verbal professions of identity, religion, or political persuasion that they may make. For this reason, if for no other, the historical study of material culture can have much to offer. And of course, there are archaeological contexts, even for the relatively recent past, where there is little else to form the basis of historical inquiry.

There are, naturally, provisos. It is not just that there are inevitably biases in the sources. This is something with which all historians have to contend, no matter their subject or the nature of the material with which they work. In general, they manage to cope with this, with greater or lesser success. Rather, material culture, being voiceless of itself, has to be given the words with which to speak. It is not always evident which words historians should give to things. In particular, they need to be careful not to assume that a community of people who use the same sorts of things have anything else in common, whether political or linguistic. Further, the study of material culture is under the continual threat of exoticism. People stress that which is strange, and overlook that which they think to be mundane. But, perhaps, it is precisely in the acceptance of what seems to be mundane that the strangest and most unlikely story of the history of African material culture is to be found.

Discussion of the Literature

The historiography of material culture has been dominated by archaeologists, for whom the material is at the basis of their professional being, and by anthropologists with a historical bent, who are also generally aware of the importance of the quotidian.60 It is however, no always easy to distinguish the work produced by people of differing disciplinary backgrounds, and anthropologically, or indeed archaeologically, inspired historians have produced a number of fascinating works. Subjects include the decline (or otherwise) of locally produced craftwork (and its corollary, the introduction of industrially manufactured goods) and also the ways in which soap and cosmetics have altered the ways in which humans relate to their own (and others’) bodies.61 As was mentioned above, the penetration of European goods into the hinterlands of the slaving ports, in both West and East Africa, has been a major area of innovative research.

In general, the engagement of historians with the collections of material culture in at least the South African museums has been limited. It was perhaps not clear what sorts of questions could be answered by the study of these ethnographica. It is, however, the role of these sorts of things in the creation of ideologies of ethnicity that makes that work exciting, as it is now developing.62

Primary Sources

With the exception of the inventories post mortem of the colonial population at the Cape of Good Hope, there are no obvious archives for the study of material culture in Africa (although the bankruptcy records and estate papers in South Africa might provide surprisingly full information). Researchers are thus dependent on a broad range of sources—archaeological reports in the first instance, but thereafter above all the writings of travelers, missionaries, colonial officials, and increasingly anthropologists (not always necessarily the most renowned) and the local press and advertising. From around 1960, market research begins to provide a useful basis, if not in all countries. For South Africa, again the works of the Bureau for Market Research of the University of South Africa and the South African Advertising (now Audience) Research Foundation give a valuable statistical basis.

Further Reading

Bank, Leslie J. Home Spaces, Street Styles: Contesting Power and Identity in a South African. London: Pluto Press and Wits University Press, 2011.Find this resource:

Brandel-Syrier, Mia. Reeftown Elite: A Study of Social Mobility in a Modern African Community on the Reef. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1971.Find this resource:

Burke, Timothy. Lifebuoy Men, Lux Women: Commodification, Consumption and Cleanliness in Modern Zimbabwe. Durham NC: Duke University Press, 1996.Find this resource:

Comaroff, John, and Jean L. Comaroff. Of Revelation and Revolution: The Dialectics of Modernity on a South African Frontier (Vol. 2). Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1997.Find this resource:

Hansen, Karen Tranberg, ed. African Encounters with Domesticity. Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2013.Find this resource:

Macola, Giacomo. The Gun in Central Africa: a history of technology and politics. Athens: Ohio University Press, 2016.Find this resource:

Monroe, J. Cameron. The Precolonial State in West Africa: Building Power in Dahomey. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2014.Find this resource:

Prestholdt, Jeremy. Domesticating the World: African Consumerism and the Genealogies of Globalization. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2008.Find this resource:

Prestholdt, Jeremy. “Africa and the Global Life of Things.” In The Oxford Handbook of the History of Consumption. Edited by Frank Trentmann, 85–109. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012.Find this resource:

Ross, Robert, Marja Hinfelaar, and Iva Peša, eds. The Objects of life in Central Africa: The History of Consumption and Social Change, 1840–1980. Boston: Brill, 2007.Find this resource:

Schoenbrun, David L . A Green Place, A Good Place: Agrarian Change, Gender and Social Identity in the Great Lakes Region to the 15th Century. Oxford: James Currey, 1998.Find this resource:

Schoenbrun, David L. “Conjuring the Modern in Africa: Durability and Rupture in Histories of Public Healing between the Great Lakes of East Africa.” American Historical Review 111, no. 5 (December 2006): 1403–1439.Find this resource:

Stahl, Ann B. Making History in Banda: Anthropological Visions of Africa’s Past. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2002.Find this resource:

Van der Bersselaar, Dmitri. The King of Drinks: Schnapps Gin from Modernity to Tradition. Boston: Brill, 2007.Find this resource:

Vansina, Jan. Paths in the Rainforest: Toward a History of Political Tradition in Equatorial Africa. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1990.Find this resource:

Vansina, Jan, How Societies are Born: Governance in West Central Africa before 1600. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2004.Find this resource:

Wynne-Jones, Stephanie. A Material Culture: Consumption and Materiality on the Coast of Precolonial East Africa. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016.Find this resource:


(1.) Pot plants may be an exception. The Oxford Handbook of Material Culture Studies also includes “cultural landscapes” within its remit, but this seems to me to be pushing the concept too far.

(2.) In general see Dan Hicks, “The Material-Cultural Turn: Event and Effect,” in The Oxford Handbook of Material Culture Studies, eds. Dan Hicks and Mary C. Beaudry (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010), 25–98, and indeed many of the other chapters in that volume.

(3.) Tim Maggs, Iron Age Communities of the southern Highveld (Pietermaritzburg: Council of the Natal Museum, 1976); and Innocent Pikirayi, The Zimbabwe Culture: Origins and Decline of Southern Zambezian States (Walnut Creek, CA: AltaMira Press, 2001).

(4.) Mats Widgren and John E. G. Sutton, eds., Islands of Intensive Agriculture in Eastern Africa: Past and Present (Oxford: James Currey, 2004); John E. G. Sutton, “Engaruka and Its Waters,” Azania 13 (1978): 37–70; and Peter Delius and Stefan Schirmer, “Order, Openness and Economic Change in Precolonial Southern Africa: A Perspective from the Bokoni Terraces,” Journal of African History 55, no. 1 (2014): 37–54.

(5.) Rita Bolland, Tellem Textiles: Archaeological Finds from Burial Caves in Mali’s Bandiagara Cliff (Amsterdam: Royal Tropical Institute, 1991), with contributions by Rogier M. A. Bedaux and Renée Boser-Sarivaxévani.

(6.) E.g., Geeske H. J. Langejans, “Remains of the Day-Preservation of Organic Micro-residues on Stone Tools,” Journal of Archaeological Science 37, no. 5 (May 2010): 971–985.

(7.) Places where this happened include the mouth of the River Congo, around the Dutch trading station at Banana, where “nailed” statues were much sought after in the later 19th century, and also Marabastad, a suburb of Pretoria at about the same time.

(8.) Patricia Davison, “Material Culture, Context and Meaning; A Critical Investigation of Museum Practice, with Particular Reference to the South African Museum” (PhD dissertation, University of Cape Town, 1991), 63–91.

(9.) Chris Wingfield, “‘Scarcely More Than a Christian Trophy Case’?: The Global Collections of the London Missionary Society Museum (1814–1910),” Journal of the History of Collections 29, no. 1 (2017): 109–128. Also Chris Wingfield, “Articles of Dress, Domestic Utensils, Arms and Other Curiosities: Excavating Early Nineteenth Century Collections from Southern African at the London Missionary Society Museum,” Journal of Southern African Studies (forthcoming).

(10.) Gordon’s material can best be traced via the Rijks Museum; Burchell’s are in the Pitt-Rivers Museum in Oxford.

(11.) Max Gluckman, “The Kingdom of the Zulu of South Africa,” in African Political Systems, eds. Meyer Fortes and E. E. Evans-Pritchard (London: Oxford University Press, 1940).

(12.) Most of these inventories are now online; for further information see Nigel Worden, “Indian Ocean Slaves in Cape Town, 1695–1807,”Journal of Southern African Studies 42, no. 3 (2016): 389–408; Johan Fourie, “The Quantitative Cape: A Review of the New Historiography of the Dutch Cape Colony,” South African Historical Journal 66, no. 1 (2014): 142–168; and Antonia Malan, Households of the Cape, 1750 to 1850: Inventories and the Archaeological Record (PhD diss., University of Cape Town, 1993); this work was done in collaboration with the Historical Archaeology Research Group of the University of Cape Town, then under the leadership of Professor Martin Hall. The closest material to this (that I know of) are the estate files held in the archives of the Native Commissioners of the various districts during the middle of the 20th century. There are, for instance, 44,027 such files in the KJB (Johannesburg) collection of the National Archives in Pretoria. They are, however, not very detailed as to the contents of each individual’s estate.

(13.) See, e.g., Ann B. Stahl, Making History in Banda: Anthropological Visions of Africa’s Past (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2001); Ann B. Stahl, “Entangled Lives: The Archaeology of Daily Life in the Gold Coast hinterlands, AD 1400–1900,” in Archaeology of Atlantic Africa and the African Diaspora, eds. Akinwumi Ogundiran and Toyin Falola (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2007), 49–76; Akinwumi Ogundiran, “Of Small Things Remembered: Beads, Cowries, and Cultural Translations of the Atlantic Experience in Yorubaland,” International Journal of African Historical Studies 35, nos. 2–3 (2002): 427 457; Akinwumi Ocundiran, “Material Life and Domestic Economy in a Frontier of the Oyo Empire during the Mid-Atlantic Age,” International Journal of African Historical Studies 42, no. 3 (2009): 351–385; François G. Richard, “Thinking through ‘Vernacular Cosmopolitanisms’: Historical Archaeology in Senegal and the Material Contours of the African Atlantic,” International Journal of Historical Archaeology 17 (2013): 40–71; and François G. Richard, “Hesitant Geographies of Power: The Materiality of Colonial Rule in the Siin (Senegal),”Journal of Social Archaeology 13, no. 1 (2012): 54–79.

(14.) Jan Hogendorn and Marion Johnson, The Shell Money of the Slave Trade (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1986); see also Jane Guyer, ed., Money Matters: Instability, Values and Social Payments in the Modern History of West African Communities (London: James Currey, 1995); and Jean L. and John Comaroff, “Beasts, Banknotes and the Colour of Money in Colonial South Africa,” Archaeological Dialogues 12, no. 2 (2005): 107–132.

(15.) Stephanie Wynne-Jones, A Material Culture: Consumption and Materiality on the Coast of Precolonial East Africa (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016); and Jeremy Prestholdt, Domesticating the World: African Consumerism and the Genealogies of Globalization (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2008).

(16.) Ellen Hellmann, Rooiyard: A Sociological Survey of an Urban Native Slum Yard (Livingstone: Rhodes-Livingstone Institute Papers, 1948); see also Andrew Bank, Pioneers of the Field: South Africa’s Women Anthropologists (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2016); and Leslie J. Bank, Home Spaces, Street Styles: Contesting Power and Identity in a South African City (London: Pluto Press, 2011.)

(17.) Ferdinand van Assche, De consumptie der inlanders te Elizabethstad: proeve van onderzoek naar haar structuur en ontwikkelingstendens (Elizabethville: Memoirs Cepsi, 1960).

(18.) Dmitri van der Bersselaar, “Who Belongs to the ‘Star People’?: Negotiating Beer and Gin Advertisements in West Africa, 1949–75,” Journal of African History 52, no. 3 (2011): 385–408; Dmitri van der Bersselaar, The King of Drinks: Schnapps Gin from Modernity to Tradition (Boston: Brill, 2007); and Walima T. Kalusa “Advertising, Consuming Manufactured Goods and Contracting Colonial Hegemony on the Zambian Copper Belt, 1945–1964,”in The Objects of life in Central Africa: The History of Consumption and Social Change, 1840–1980, eds. Robert Ross, Marja Hinfelaar, and Iva Peša (Boston: Brill, 2007), 143–166.

(19.) M.M. Dell, “First Address, ‘Bantu Market’ Session,” in Third Advertising Convention in South Africa: The Challenge of a Decade (Johannesburg: Statistic Holdings Ltd., 1960), 117.

(20.) Its name changed in 2015 to the South African Audience Research Foundation.

(21.) Television was only introduced in South Africa in 1975.

(22.) The publication of the results of the first survey in 1974 was delayed when it was discovered that SAARF had underestimated the black population of Welkom, so that a number of extra interviews were required to achieve the desired representativity.

(23.) Jan-Bart Gewald, To Grahamstown and Back: towards a Socio-cultural History of Southern Africa (Leiden, The Netherlands: Universiteit, 2014); cf. Robert Ross, A Concise History of South Africa, 2nd ed. (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press), 55.

(24.) Alfred M. Duggan-Cronin, The Bantu Tribes of South Africa, 11 vols. (Cambridge: Deighton Bell and Co, Macgregor Memorial Museum, 1928–1954).

(25.) Michael Godby “Alfred Martin Duggan-Cronin’s Photographs for ‘The Bantu Tribes of South (1928–1954): the Construction of an Ambiguous Idyll,” Kronos 36 (2010): 54–83.

(26.) Basil Humphreys, “The Duggan-Cronin Bantu Gallery, Kimberley,” Lantern 11, no. 2 (1961): 71–78, cited in Darren Newbury, Defiant Images: Photography and Apartheid in South Africa (Pretoria: Unisa Press, 2009), 16.

(27.) Isaac Schapera, “Present-Day Life in the Native Reserves,” in Western Civilization and the Natives of South Africa: Studies in Culture Contact, ed. Isaac Schapera (London: Routledge, 1934), 42. For the photos, see John L. Comaroff, Jean Comaroff, and Deborah James, Picturing a Colonial Past: The African Photographs of Isaac Schapera (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007).

(28.) Michelle Lamunière, You Look Beautiful Like That: The Portrait Photographs of Seydou Keïta and Malick Sidibé, (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Art Museums, 2001).

(29.) E.g., Isolde Brielmaier, “Mombasa on Display: Photography and the Formation of an Urban Public from the 1940s Onward,” in Portraiture and Photography in Africa, eds. John Peffer and Elisabeth L. Cameron (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2013), 253–287; and Heike Behrend, Contesting Visibility: Photographic Practices on the East African Coast (Bielefeld: Transcript, 2013).

(31.) For this I have used Isabel Uys, The Six Language Picture Aid (Pretoria: Protea, 2008).

(32.) Jan Vansina, Paths in the Rainforest: Toward a History of Political Tradition in Equatorial Africa (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1990); Jan Vansina, How Societies Are Born: Governance in West Central Africa before 1600 (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2004); David L. Schoenbrun, A Green Place, A Good Place: Agrarian Change, Gender and Social Identity in the Great Lakes Region to the 15th Century (Oxford: James Currey, 1998); and David L. Schoenbrun, “Conjuring the Modern in Africa: Durability and Rupture in Histories of Public Healing between the Great Lakes of East Africa,” American Historical Review 111, no. 5 (December 2006): 1403–1439.

(33.) A. M. Jones, Africa and Indonesia: the evidence of the xylophone and other musical and cultural factors (Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 1964).

(34.) Gerda Rossel, Taxonomic-Linguistic Study of Plantain in Africa (Leiden, The Netherlands: Research School CNWS, 1998); this is all the more remarkable as cultivated bananas and plantains do not set seed, but have to be grown from cuttings. Dorian Q Fuller, Nicole Boivin, Tom Hoogervorst, and Robin Allaby, “Across the Indian Ocean: The Prehistoric Movement of Plants and Animals,” Antiquity 85 (328): 544–558.

(35.) Jan Vansina, “The Bells of Kings,” Journal of African History 10, no. 2 (April 1969): 187–197.

(36.) Not only in Africa. In European prehistory, the units with which archaeologists work include “the Beaker Folk” in Britain and the Linearbandkeramik (Linear Pottery) culture, which spread from the Danube to the mouth of the Rhine.

(37.) Thomas N. Huffman, Handbook to the Iron Age: The Archaeology of Pre-colonial Farming Societies in Southern Africa (Scottsville: University of KwaZulu-Natal Press, 2007).

(38.) Ceri Z. Ashley, “Towards a Socialised Archaeology of Ceramics in Great Lakes Africa,” African Archaeological Review 27 (2010): 135–163.

(39.) Igor Kopytoff, “The Internal African Frontier: The Making of African Political Culture,” in The African Frontier: The Reproduction of Traditional African Societies, ed. Igor Kopytoff (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1987), 1–85.

(40.) In German, pithily characterized as Schutz, Scham, and Schmuck.

(41.) Godfrey Wilson, An Essay on the Economics of Detribalization in Northern Rhodesia, 2 parts (Livingstone: Rhodes-Livingstone Institute, 1941–2), part 2, 16.

(42.) Michael Barrett, “‘Walking Home Majestically’: Consumption and the Enactment of Social Status among Labour Migrants from Barotseland, 1835–1865,” in The Objects of life in Central Africa: The History of Consumption and Social Change, 1840–1980, eds. Robert Ross, Marja Hinfelaar, and Iva Peša (Boston: Brill, 2007), 93–115.

(43.) Prestholdt, Domesticating the World, 117–147.

(44.) Norman A. Etherington, “Outward and Visible Signs of Conversion in Nineteenth-century KwaZulu-Natal,” Journal of Religion in Africa 32, no. 4 (2002): 422–439.

(45.) The Evidence to this commission is to be found in the National Archives in Pretoria; the part that was typed out for the members of the commission is online.

(46.) John L. and Jean Comaroff, Of Revelation and Revolution: the Dialects of Modernity on a South African Frontier, vol. 2 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1997); Robert Ross, “A Respectable Age,” African Historical Review 47, no. 1 (2015): 1–5; and Robert Ross, Clothing: A Global History; or the Imperialists’ New Clothes (Cambridge, UK: Polity Press, 2008).

(47.) Giacomo Macola, The Gun in Central Africa: A History of Technology and Politics (Athens: Ohio University Press, 2016); and Ann B. Stahl, “Circulations through Worlds Apart: Georgian and Victorian England in an African Mirror,” in Materializing Colonial Encounters: Archaeologies of African Experience, ed. François G. Richard (New York: Springer, 2015), 71–96.

(48.) Bukola A. Oyeniyi, Dress in the Making of an African Identity: A Social and Cultural History of the Yoruba People (Amherst, NY: Cambria, 2015).

(49.) Ross, Clothing, 118–138.

(50.) The late Thera Wijsenbeek once told me that, when on a visit to Ivory Coast, accompanying her husband, a Dutch Euro-Parliamentarian, she was given two Vlisco cloths as an example of authentic African culture.

(51.) Information from the exhibition Vlisco.1:1, Un à Un, Gemeentemuseum, Helmond, 2017.

(52.) Allison K. Strutt, Manners Make a Nation: Racial Etiquette in Southern Rhodesia (Rochester, NY: University of Rochester Press, 2015).

(53.) Michael Rowlands, “Accumulation and the Cultural Politics of Identity in the Grassfields,” in Itinérairesa d’Accumulation au Cameroun: Pathways to Accumulation in Cameroun, eds. Peter Geschiere and Piet Konings (Paris: Karthala, 1993) 71–97.

(54.) Mia Brandel-Syrier, Reeftown Elite: A Study of Social Mobility in a Modern African Community on the Reef (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1971).

(55.) Van Assche, Consumptie der Inlanders.

(56.) E.g., Meghan Healy-Clancy, A World of Their Own: A History of South African Women’s Education (Scottsville: University of KwaZulu-Natal Press, 2013); and Nancy Rose Hunt, “Colonial Fairy Tales and the Knife and Fork Doctrine in the Heart of Africa,” in African Encounters with Domesticity, ed. Karen Tranberg Hansen (Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2013).

(57.) Judith Amsenga, “Het beschavingsoffensief van de negentiende eeuw,” Historische Nieuwsblad 5 (2005): 1–8.

(58.) Second Advertising Convention of South Africa (Durban, South Africa: Society of Advertisers, 1959), 9.

(59.) Cited in Timothy Burke, Lifebuoy Men, Lux Women: Commodification, Consumption and Cleanliness in Modern Zimbabwe (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1996), 89–90.

(60.) E.g., John and Jean L. Comaroff, Of Revelation and Revolution; and Leslie Bank, Home Spaces, Street Styles.

(61.) For instance, cf. Elizabeth A Eldredge, A South African Kingdom: The Pursuit of Security in Nineteenth-Century Lesotho (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1993), 82–100; with Rachel King, Charles Arthur, and Peter Mitchell, “Ha Makoanyane: The Archaeology and History of Colonial Rransitions in Lesotho,” Southern African Humanities 26 (2014): 57–81; and Burke, Lifebuoy Men, Lux Women.

(62.) E.g., Carolyn Hamilton and Nessa Liebhammer, eds., Tribing and Untribing the Archive (Scottsville: University of KwaZulu-Natal 2016).